Priceless and Primordial

Cataloguing the Brasier Collection


In 2021, the Museum was grateful to host PhD students Sarah Skeels and Euan Furness on research internships. Together, Sarah and Euan made a significant contribution to the cataloguing of the Brasier Collection — a remarkable assembly of fossils and rocks donated to the Museum by the late Professor Martin Brasier. Here, Sarah and Euan recount their experiences inventorying this priceless collection of early lifeforms.


Sarah Skeels is a DPhil Student in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

My short internship at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History came at a transitional point in my research career, starting a few days after submitting my PhD thesis. By training, I am a Zoologist, and my PhD thesis is on the electrosensing abilities of weakly electric fish. However, I have had an interest in Palaeontology for a long time, having studied Geology as part of my undergraduate degree. As such, the internship provided me with a unique opportunity to reflect on a subject I had studied many years before, whilst also developing new academic research skills.

The goal of my internship was to improve the inventory of the microfossils held in The Brasier Collection and to photograph some of these specimens, all in the hopes of increasing the utility of the collection to students, researchers, and hobbyists alike.

Obtusoconus, a fossilised mollusc from Iran, is less than 0.5mm in width. The specimen has been gold-coated in preparation for scanning electron microscopy. Brasier Collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
A collection of Siphogonuchites, small shelly fossil organisms, found in Mongolia. Brasier Collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The Brasier Collection is rich in microfossils — small fossils that can only properly be inspected with either a light or electron microscope. Those stored in the Collection represent the fragmentary remains of a diverse array of animal groups that lived in the Cambrian, an important period in the Earth’s history when animal life diversified hugely, giving rise to many of the modern phyla that we know and love. The microfossils I examined came from a number of localities across the globe, including Maidiping in China and Valiabad in Iran. The specimens are exquisite in detail, which makes it difficult to believe that they are hundreds of millions of years old.

These fossils are of huge importance, helping us to understand the emergence of early animal life, and its evolution into all of the wonderful forms that exist today. The fossils are also useful because they can serve as markers of the age of different rock forms. By helping to improve the way these specimens are catalogued, I like to think that I am contributing to the preservation of Professor Brasier’s legacy. The whole experience was incredibly rewarding, and I can’t wait to see what new discoveries are made by those who study this unique set of fossils.


Euan Furness is a PhD student at Imperial College London

Oxford University Museum of Natural History has a range of objects on display to the public, but a lot of the curatorial work of the Museum goes on behind the scenes, conserving and managing objects that never come into public view. Collection specimens often don’t look like much, but they can be the most valuable objects to researchers within and outside the Museum. While there are a few visually striking pieces in the Brasier Collection, the humble appearance of most of the Brasier specimens belies their importance.

Left: A photo of Professor Brasier (bottom right) and friends, found in the Collection. Middle: Euan cataloguing in the Hooke basement. Right: An unusually well-preserved archaeocyathid (extinct sponge) from the Cambrian of Australia. Photo by Euan Furness.

The Brasier Collection came to the Museum in bits and pieces from the Oxford University Department of Earth Sciences, with the last of the specimens arriving in September 2021. The Museum therefore needed to determine exactly what they had received before they could decide how to make the best use of it. This meant searching through boxes and drawers behind the scenes and pulling together as much information as possible about the new objects: dates and locations of collection, identity, geological context, and the like. Only then could the more interesting specimens be integrated with the existing collections in the drawers of the Museum’s Palaeozoic Room.

Owing to Professor Brasier’s research interests, the addition of the Brasier Collection to the Museum’s catalogue more than doubled the volume of Precambrian material in its drawers. With that in mind, it was finally time for the Precambrian to be given a set of cabinets to call its own. This seems only fair, given that the Precambrian was not only a fascinating period in the Earth’s history but also the longest!

Having sorted through the new Brasier Collection at length, I think it’s not unreasonable to hope that the unique array of objects it adds to the Museum’s collections will facilitate a great deal of research in the future. For that, we must thank Martin for his generosity.

The Geology of Oxford Gravestones

By Duncan Murdock, Earth Collections manager

A cemetery may seem like an unusual location for a geology fieldtrip, but for rock hounds from beginner to professor there’s a treasure trove of different rock types in gravestones. Whether it’s shells of oysters from the time of the dinosaurs, or beautiful feldspar crystals formed deep within the Earth’s crust, rocks are uniquely placed to tell the story of the history of our planet.

This incredible resource is elegantly celebrated in a new temporary exhibition in the Weston Library in Oxford. Compiled by two of the Museum’s Honorary Associates, Nina Morgan and Philip Powell, The Geology of Oxford Gravestones brings together the geological and human history of Oxford’s cemeteries.

The exhibition is illustrated with artefacts including undertakers’ trade cards and ‘rules of burial’, rock samples from the Museum’s collections, and photographs of headstones from Museum luminaries such as Henry John Stephen Smith, our second Keeper, and Henry Acland, one of our founders.

The Geology of Oxford Gravestones exhibition poster

Although compact, the exhibition is full of fascinating snippets for fans of geology and social history alike, even bringing the science right up to date with a study using lichen on gravestones to understand our changing environment. The text and objects on display are enhanced by rolling digital displays that give more insight and colour to the story.

As the exhibition says, “visit a cemetery with a hand lens and you’ll be amazed at what you can see, you’ll never look at cemeteries in the same way again”. Just make sure you visit the display in the Weston Library first!

The Geology of Oxford Gravestones, is in the Blackwell Hall foyer of the Weston Library in Broad Street, Oxford and runs from 17 July to 12 September 2021. You can also find out more about Gravestone Geology here and in our previous post Celebrate science in a cemetery.

Railway Geology part 2: Read all about it

By Nina Morgan – geologist, science writer and Honorary Associate of the Museum
Picture research by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

The expansion of the railways in the 19th century offered more than just faster travel times. The growing rail network opened up the potential for introducing the wonders of geology, scenery and history to the travelling public at large. It also made it possible for geologists working in the field to import the comforts of home. And it spawned a new form of popular science and travel writing – describing geology and scenery from the train.

The geologist John Phillips, then based in York but later first Keeper of the Museum, was among the first to recognise these advantages. In 1841 he was on assignment mapping with the fledgling geological survey in southwest Wales. He expected the project to last several months, so rented a house in Tenby and – missing his home life – asked his sister Anne, along with Mary, her maid, and Cholo, their dog, to travel from York to Tenby join him.

Letter from John Phillips to his sister Anne, 28 April, 1841 (OUMNH Archive)

It was a marathon journey. In a long letter to Anne written on 28 April 1841, he provided her with detailed instructions about how to achieve it. Although it is clear that Phillips had become very familiar with the train timetables, he was not so sure about the rules for travelling with dogs. Two days later he wrote again to Anne to say:   

“How you will bring poor Cholo I do not even conjecture. Perhaps they will let him be with you in the carriage…. Pray have a good courage  then all will go right.”

 John Phillips’s popular railway guidebook, 2nd edition, 1855 (OUMNH collection)

Phillips’s book, Railway Excursions from York, Leeds and Hull, first published in 1853, was a popular success. It went through several editions and was republished several times under various titles.  Along with references to geology, the book included much historical background about the buildings, sights to be seen, and advice on the top ‘tourist destinations’ and how to reach them.

Phillips’s book inspired other geologists to jump onto the platform, and as new lines opened, so new railway geology guidebooks began to appear. Notable examples include the Geology of the Hull and Barnsley Railway by Edward Maule Cole, which appeared in 1886; and Yorkshire from a Railway Carriage Window, included as Part 2 in the massive Geology of Yorkshire by Percy Fry Kendall, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Leeds University, and Herbert Wroot, Honorary secretary of the Yorkshire Geological Society, which was published in 1924.

 Illustrations from Geology from a Railway Window, part 2 of The Geology of Yorkshire by Percy Fry Kendall and Herbert B. Wroot, 1924 (OUMNH collection)

Network rail

As the railway network expanded throughout Britain, so did the number of authors keen to describe the geology of their part of the country from the windows of a train. In 1878, the Geologists’ Association organised an excursion to examine the geology exposed in railway cuttings along the Banbury and Cheltenham District Railway from Chipping Norton to Hook Norton. Participants were advised to take the train from Paddington to Chipping Norton, with luggage directed to The White Hart, Chipping Norton.

In 1886, Sir Edward Poulton, later Hope Professor of Zoology at the University of Oxford, published an account of The Geology of the Great Western Railway journey from Oxford to Reading. Then in 1945, the Oxford geologist W.J. Arkell published his classic paper, Geology and Prehistory from the train, Oxford to Paddington; and in 2005 Philip Powell, a former curator and now Honorary Associate at the Museum, paid tribute to Arkell’s methods of observation by adding a final chapter outlining the geology that can be seen when travelling on part of the Cotswold Line from Moreton in Marsh to Reading, to his 2005 book, The Geology of Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile, the geologist Eric Robinson, now retired from University College London, prepared numerous handouts for his students and amateur guides describing the geology that can be seen from trains leaving from various London stations.

Times past

Along the way all of the ‘railway geologists’ painted vivid pictures both of the geology and the countryside as they saw it, and their descriptions – especially those from the earlier publications – provide a valuable insight into landscapes and railway lines now lost.

“A railway tour is life in a hurry,” Phillips proclaimed in his pioneering railway book. He clearly enjoyed the rush, and so did the many other geological authors and lovers of the countryside who followed in his tracks. Even today, with a railway geology book in hand, those delays along the line can turn into a real pleasure – depending where you’re held up, of course!

Railway Geology Part 1: The flying steed

By Nina Morgan – geologist, science writer and Honorary Associate of the Museum
Picture research by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

The introduction and growth of the railway network in the first half of the 19th century not only revolutionised travel and transport of goods for many, but it also had a profound effect on the science of geology.  Not only did it make it easier for geologists to cover the ground quickly – but the railway cuttings for the new lines revealed rock outcrops that had never before been seen.

John Phillips as a young man

One of the first to take advantage of the new possibilities was John Phillips (1800–1874), the first Keeper of the Museum, and nephew of William Smith, often referred to as the Father of English Geology. Phillips was orphaned at the age of eight, along with his younger sister Anne, and their younger brother, Jenkin.

John was educated at Smith’s expense and learned about geology at his uncle’s knee. He was reunited with Anne in 1829.  Neither married and they lived together until her death, with Anne serving as John’s housekeeper, moral support, confidant and geological companion. John went on to become a skilled palaeontologist, field geologist and prolific author.  He also became a great train enthusiast.

Anne Phillips photographed in 1860
(© Royal Institution London)

On 23 July 1835, John wrote to Anne with this vivid description of his first train journey – travelling on a ‘flying steed of Iron,’ from Manchester to Liverpool on his way to Dublin.

“…My dear Annie, You must certainly come to feel the strange impression of this flying Steed of Iron. It does so hurry & flurry on, you shake & sleep & start & wonder at the gliding Houses, trees & Churches, — the trains which meet & pass you’ like the swiftest birds with a rushing sound & the Master power (Steam) & a confused picture of colours & forms not at all distinct as Men[,] Women, Carriages &c that it is all like magic & can not be understood by a mere description. Then you are dragged through a tunnel full of gas lamps, then laid hold of by ruffian porters & crammed into an Omnibus whether you will or no & whirled away the man who guides (only) knows whither. “

Phillips quickly became a convert to train travel. He was often travelling from his then base in York to earn money by giving lecture courses by subscription to members of the various newly formed Philosophical societies, so enjoyed the relative convenience and faster travel times railways offered – even though, as he wrote to Anne in March 1841, the trains were not always punctual. 

Black and white image of railway station  on postcard.
Liverpool and Manchester Railway commemorative postcard
(author’s collection)

“I found the Train of yesternight very good travelling till we entered on the Leeds & Manchester line at Normanton. Then began this singular amusement: to lose time so as to arrive in 4 hours from Leeds, the time really required being 2 1/2 hours.  We did this odd railway feat by stopping 5 minutes each at about 10 stations & using all possible precautions not to go too fast.  This is said to be on account of the recent embankments not allowing of rapid transit: but some of the trains are faster. We reached Manchester at 10:30, that is to say in 4 hours from York.”

Sound familiar?!

Scan of handwritten letter.
Letter from John Phillips to his sister Anne, 30 March 1841 (OUMNH Archive)

In the second part of Railway Geology, Nina will take a look at how the expansion of the railway network spawned a new form of popular science and travel writing.

Celebrate science in a cemetery

By Nina Morgan, Gravestone Geology

Cemeteries not only provide a peaceful place to commemorate the dead, and observe and enjoy nature; they are also wonderful repositories for the study of local history and art. But that’s not all. Cemeteries also offer an easy introduction to science that anyone can enjoy.

A visit to a cemetery presents a wonderful way to learn about geology and the other sciences, such as chemistry, physics and engineering, that underpin it. For geologists – whether amateur, student or professional – almost any urban cemetery provides a valuable opportunity to carry out scientific fieldwork at leisure, right on the doorstep, and at no cost.

Headington Municipal Cemetery, Oxford

Geology on show

Because gravestones are made from a wide variety of rock types formed in a range of geological settings, cemeteries can be geological treasure-troves. Many headstones are made of polished stone, so reveal details – such as minerals and crystal features – that are not easy to see elsewhere. Some demonstrate the textures and mineral composition of igneous rocks – rocks formed when molten magma cooled and solidified. Others are happy hunting grounds for lovers of fossils. Some gravestones reveal sedimentary structures that show how the rock was originally deposited. Others provide clues to earth movements and environments that occurred hundreds of millions of years ago.

For those interested in engineering, examination of gravestones can also provide useful information about topics ranging from weathering of stone to atmospheric chemistry, effects of pollution, stability and settling in soils and land drainage. 

St Andrews Church in Headington, Oxford

Cemeteries in Oxford include ancient churchyards, such as St Andrews Headington, as well as Victorian cemeteries like Holywell (pictured top) and St Sepulchres, and more modern burial grounds, such as Headington Municipal cemetery. Together they exhibit the main features and stone types that can be seen in cemeteries all around Britain.

St Sepulchres Cemetery, Oxford

In the short video below, filmed in the churchyard of St Mary and John in Oxford’s Cowley Road, Philip Powell and I introduce the basics and show you how to get started in exploring these geological gems. If you want to learn more, visit www.gravestonegeology.uk. But be warned – gravestone geology can be addictive. Once you’ve got your eye in, you’ll never look at cemeteries in the same way again!

All images and video by Mike Tomlinson.

Happy 250th William Smith

Today is the 250th birthday of the remarkable English geologist William Smith, creator of the first geological map of England and Wales – ‘the map that changed the world’. Here Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, tells us more about Smith’s achievements and his relationship to the Museum.

William Smith (1769-1839)

William Smith (1769-1839) began his career as a land surveyor’s assistant in his home village of Churchill, Oxfordshire. He soon travelled the country working on mining, canal and irrigation projects. This gave him the opportunity to observe the patterns in layers of rock, known as strata, and to recognise that they could be identified by the fossils they contained. This would earn him the name ‘Strata Smith.’

Smith’s observations of strata over hundreds of miles led to the ground-breaking 1815 publication of his map A delineation of strata of England and Wales (pictured top) that ultimately bankrupted him.

Smith’s map set the style for modern geological maps and many of the names and colours he applied to the strata are still used today. While Smith’s accomplishment was undoubtedly remarkable, he was only officially recognised for his discoveries late in life. His lack of formal education and his family’s working class background made him an outcast to most of higher society at the time.

Geological Map of Bath, 1799. This map is considered to be one the earliest geological maps ever created. It demonstrates an early use of Smith’s ‘fading’ colouring technique which emphasised the outcrops of each stratum. The yellow tint represents the Bath Oolite, the blue marks the base of the Lias, and the red the base of the Trias.

It wasn’t until a few years before he passed away that Smith received any recognition for his contribution to the science of geology, receiving a number of awards, including the prestigious Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1831, and an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin in 1835.

A bust of William Smith is on display in the Museum’s court

His legacy lived on with his nephew John Phillips, one of our Museum’s founders and Professor of Geology at Oxford. Recognising its importance, Phillips left Smith’s archive to the Museum on his death in 1874. Thanks to generous funding from Arts Council England a few years ago, the Smith collection has been catalogued, digitised and is available online to the public.

Few men in the history of science contributed as much, but are as little known, as William Smith. He was a hardworking and determined man who dedicated his life to understanding the world beneath us. So here’s a big Happy 250th birthday to William Smith – the ‘Father of English Geology.’

A small display, Presenting… William Smith: ‘The Father of English Geology’ 250 years on, is running in the Museum until 2 May 2019.